For Israel and its supporters in the United States, Palestinians are to be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In short, Palestinians are culpable as terrorists when they take up arms to struggle against a relentless military occupation, and they are, in equal measure, denounced as anti-Semitic demons when they adopt a posture of non-violent resistance to that occupation.
Consider the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, the Palestinian-led campaign promoting a boycott against Israel until that entity meets its obligations under international law. The movement has drawn into its orbit prominent artists, unionists, filmmakers, academics, actors, writers and others, including J.K. Rowling, the British novelist best known for writing the Harry Potter fantasy series, who in 2015 stated: “The Palestinian community has suffered untold injustice and brutality. I want to see the Israeli government held to account for that injustice and brutality …”
Never before had Israel faced such a challenge to its image around the world as the one that BDS is presenting it with. And that is why its supporters in the United States, whose notoriety as arm-twisters with muscle in Congress is well-known, have come out swinging.
“The Palestinian community has suffered untold injustice and brutality. I want to see the Israeli government held to account for that injustice and brutality …”
Last week, 398 members of the House of Representatives passed a resolution to oppose BDS, with Palestinian American Rep. Rashida Tlaib — a member of the so-called Squad that is making waves on Capitol Hill — casting one of the 17 “no” votes. Notwithstanding the disparity in the numbers and the bipartisan support it garnered, the resolution remains non-binding, which means it doesn’t require passage in the Senate or the president’s signature. In effect, it was passed to express the “sentiment” of the chamber and give “advice” on the issue in question. That, in turn, means the resolution does not have the force of law and thus is not the last word on the matter.
A sinister tribute
You, no doubt, have your own view on why a chamber in the most powerful parliamentary body on the planet would concern itself so earnestly with BDS, or why — still in context — the State Department would want to, as it did on April 10, deny entry of Omar Barghouti, co-founder of this movement, as he was about to board a plane in Israel on his way to the US, where he was to go on a lecture tour. My own view, intellectually arcane though it may be, is that when you deny a person or a movement their right to free speech, as the US has done to Barghouti, you are paying a sinister tribute to the power of ideas in human affairs. No army, wrote Victor Hugo, can stop an idea whose time has come. Neither can a congress.
The right to boycott is time-honoured and is globally recognised as a form of free speech. It was first popularised, in the culture of non-violent resistance to injustice, in Ireland during the struggle against British colonial rule, when, in 1880, one Charles Boycott, the local agent of an absentee British landowner, was subjected to social ostracism organised by the Irish Land League in County Mayo, after he attempted to evict tenants from the land because they refused to pay exorbitant rents.
The tenants, despite resultant hardships, stopped working in the fields and stables of the estate. The community shunned Boycott. Shopkeepers refused to trade with him. Publicans refused to serve him a pint. And even the postman refused to deliver his mail.
The Charles Boycott affair is well known, as are the tales of countless other boycotts that preceded and followed it, from the American people’s own boycott of British goods at the time of the revolutionary war between 1765 and 1783 to the worldwide boycott of apartheid South Africa in the mid 1980s. Boycotts are not just-time honoured as a form of civil disobedience but as a means to signal to the world the intensity with which a group of people, or a whole community, feels about being victims of injustice.
For the House of Representatives to pass a resolution effectively denying Americans the right to boycott Israel is a subversion of the First Amendment and the very ethos of the American Constitution.
Rep Rashida Tlaib put it in a nutshell after the resolution was passed last week. She said: “I cannot stand by and watch this attack on our freedom of speech and the right to boycott the racist policies of the government and the state of Israel.” That a mere 17 members of the House agreed with her, and 398 did not, shows you how far one still has to go. That the issue was seen of such import, however, that it was taken up in the chamber at all shows you how BDS is not background noise. It swings its weight around. It is making a difference.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.